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How to run a community café or coffee shop

A community café or coffee shop is a great way to link into the community around you. Who doesn't enjoy meeting with others over a drink and something to eat? It is a wonderful way to open your church up and create a welcoming atmosphere which can attract anyone within your community. It also creates a place where you can draw alongside people and build relationships.

In my role as Community Outreach Worker, I oversee two very different versions of what this can look like:

– Our community café runs once a week and is completely free and open to anyone within the community. We run it alongside our food bank so we can encourage clients to stay, although it could also be run as a standalone initiative as well.

– Our coffee shop trades as a commercial business and runs out of a purpose-built building next to the church.

This article will primarily focus on how to run a community café (as this option is probably more accessible to most churches) but I will later touch on how you might set up a commercial coffee shop as a way to reach your community. 

The Community Café 

The purpose

Our heart is to reach out to the community, to draw alongside them in whatever they are facing, to support them in any way we can, and to build relationships and share the gospel.  It’s important to create a space where anyone is welcome to come along and spend time together, where people can come and enjoy refreshments and conversations together.  All of which creates community.

It’s important to create a space where anyone is welcome to come along and spend time together, where people can come and enjoy refreshments and conversations together. 

The practicalities

  • Room and set-up: All you need is a room or hall that has easy access to a kitchen.  Keep it simple but pay attention to detail – just because it is free doesn’t mean it can’t be nice. Think about how you can create a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Use tablecloths, flowers and background music.
  • Time: Once a week for 2–3 hours done properly is enough. Focusing on doing it well for a short period of time on a regular basis will be more fruitful than spreading volunteers too thin or tiring them out. 
  • Food and drink: Keep it simple but high quality. Can you invest in a proper coffee machine? Can your biscuits and cakes be homemade? For the more adventurous you could provide soup or hot filled rolls. Draw on the gifts of hospitality within your congregation.
  • Volunteers: Don’t try and do everything yourself. It is really important to build the right team of volunteers around you. Think about having people who are good at the practical aspects of helping set up, serving people and clearing up. It is also vitally important to have a small group of volunteers whose sole purpose is to get around the tables and to make people feel welcome and talk to them. This is the key to really getting to know the people who come along. You must have people who are invested, good at listening and are able to spend quality time with people. It may be worth considering having activities available, for example crafts or games, as some people talk more while engaged in an activity rather than directly over a coffee.
  • Getting people along: Try to avoid your community café becoming a place where only people from the church get together. It is important that people from the church come along but be intentional about reaching those in your community that don’t come to church. Advertise through other ministries you may run, and flyers through the doors of the houses directly around your church; also local shops and community centres are great places to start advertising. You may wish to have a particular people group or demographic in mind (we focus on those who are facing financial hardship). Try to avoid your community café becoming a place where only people from the church get together.

Try to avoid your community café becoming a place where only people from the church get together.

Be intentional

Avoid letting people come and go each week without talking to them. Be intentional about finding out about them, their families and lives.

  • Listen: Don’t try and introduce too much too soon but listen to the people that come along. Listen for and respond to the needs within your community (every community will be different). As our community café runs alongside our food bank, we find we are responding to many people in poverty with debt issues, addictions and unemployment. However the needs in your area may be different.  
  • Help: Once you have identified the needs in your community look at ways that you can help address them. How can you draw alongside them practically and help them? In doing so you will be showing them the love of Jesus.
  • Further Support: Make links with other services in your area that can help those who come along. Have information on hand that you can use to signpost people or invite different agencies along occasionally to provide additional support.

Pray

  • As a team: It may seem obvious but make sure you take time to pray together before you open your doors each week. Opening your doors to your community can get messy. Pray for God’s wisdom, guidance, patience and love, and for opportunities to share the gospel.
  • With the community: Offer to pray with or for people. Some people are more open to being prayed with than others but in our experience very rarely does someone refuse to be prayed for. We also provide prayer cards on the tables that people can fill in and hand to one of the team. 

Opening your doors to your community can get messy. Pray for God’s wisdom, guidance, patience and love, and for opportunities to share the gospel.

The gospel

Sharing of the gospel in the context of a community café is most effective if it is done in a natural way. This is why the building of relationships is so important. That is the only way you will be able to naturally bring Jesus – and what he has done for us and how he has helped us in our lives – into the conversations we have with people. We want to spark an interest in the people we are speaking to so that they want to find out more about the gospel.

Sharing of the gospel in the context of a community café is most effective if it is done in a natural way. This is why the building of relationships is so important.

You can then use this context to invite them along to lunches/community services where the gospel is very intentionally shared. Alternatively, you could invite them along to church or offer to read the Bible with them.

The Coffee Shop

While the community café provides a wonderful evangelistic opportunity, for those churches with the resources and passion for a longer-term project, a commercially run coffee shop can provide an even greater opportunity for community engagement. Let me outline a few brief points from our experience.

First, it is worth saying that there are a variety of legal and practical requirements that are necessary to set up a commercial coffee shop. I don’t have time to cover those details in depth here, but it’s worth highlighting nonetheless. 

Secondly, we want our coffee shop to be distinctive. The following points are very important to us: 

  • We want church members involved in running, working and volunteering in the coffee shop so that the Christian focus isn’t lost 
  • We are more about generosity than profit
  • It is an amazing opportunity as people come to us, so we want people to notice that we are different from other coffee shops in the way we act, care, and serve the community
  • We want to build real relationships with regular customers and find opportunities to share our faith
  • We want it to be a place where people can come and feel comfortable to meet friends to read the Bible and pray together
  • We want to be a shining light for Jesus in the community 

Both a community café and a coffee shop provide great gospel opportunities. Let me encourage you to think through how your church might use them to reach your community.

Karen Dornan

Karen Dornan is a wife and mum to two children and also the Community Outreach Worker at Calderwood Baptist Church.

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